Cold War

Douglas B-66 – From Bomber to Reconnaissance, the Versatility of the Destroyer

One constant theme of aviation manufacture is that of an aircraft being employed in roles not intended in the original design, and the Douglas B-66 Destroyer is a prime example of this phenomenon that often occurs during military procurement programs.

Conceived as a light bomber, the B-66 never dropped a single bomb in anger, but had a good service record as an electronic warfare aircraft during the Vietnam War.

A lineal descendant of one of the largest naval carrier-borne aircraft ever made, the B-66 went through a wasteful re-design project before being accepted into the United States Air Force service during the 1950s.

The B-66 and its naval ancestor became embroiled in the savage in-fighting between the different branches of the US military that was occurring during the early part of the Cold War.

Despite these potential setbacks, the B-66 served with distinction through its only combat deployment in South-East Asia, and the type continued to equip USAF squadrons until its retirement in 1975.

A cutaway of the B-66.
A cutaway of the B-66.


Development and Procurement

When President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 that re-organised the armed forces into a single government department, the American public could be forgiven for thinking that the US military would operate smoothly in a spirit of inter-service cooperation.

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The reality was far different, with the separate service branches almost immediately becoming involved in internecine warfare over budget allocations and areas of operational responsibility.

Nowhere was this more bitter and divisive than the struggles between the United States Navy and the USAF over nuclear warheads, and how those weapons could be employed in the strategic battleground.

During the 1950s the USN was advocating the building of the ‘supercarriers’ of the United States Class, and in a bid to remain relevant in the strategic nuclear strike role procured a large, carrier-borne medium bomber for this task.

This aircraft from the Douglas Corporation became known as the A-3 Skywarrior and was intended for use in both nuclear delivery and conventional strike roles.

The USAF questioned the ambitious requirements of the design specifications and the role of nuclear strike aircraft in the proposed carrier air wings.

Despite the United States Class being cancelled, the A-3 program continued and produced a good workable aircraft that had a long and distinguished record with the USN, and the USAF considered adapting the A-3 airframe into a light bomber design for air force use, despite their ongoing harassment of the navy program.

The original thinking in the upper reaches of the air force reasoned that the A-3 adaptation would be an easy and low-cost project, with the original plan for the maritime-specific equipment such as arresting gear to be removed and USAF avionics fitted in an otherwise service-ready airframe.

A B-66 at an airshow.
An RB-66 at an airshow. Photo credit – RuthAS CC BY-SA 3.0.

As such, the USAF saw no need for any prototyping and ordered five pre-production examples as the RB-66A, optimised for the reconnaissance role but mainly used for service flight testing.

The requirement for USAF aircraft to be capable of low-level attacks was a departure from the Navy’s use of the A-3, which was intended for the high-altitude nuclear strike task.

Accordingly, the air force believed a massive re-design program for the B-66 was required, and the USAF ended up with what was a basically new design, but it was later estimated that 98% of the modifications were completely unnecessary.

It was said that the only positive change was the fitting of ejector seats, which the naval aircraft lacked.

With new wings, fuselage and power plants, the B-66 Destroyer re-build showed absolutely no improvement over the original A-3 design, and in some cases was somewhat worse, especially in the matter of engine power and economy.

This pointless waste was a direct result of continual Navy/Air Force squabbling over the nuclear strike role and other budgetary considerations.

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The first flight of one of the pre-production RB-66A occurred in June 1954, and the USAF ordered 72 units of the bomber variant, the B-66B in late 1954.

This production run had been completed by the middle of 1956, but further orders for the bomber version were cancelled soon after. The B-66B was mainly employed for service testing and modification into electronic warfare variants.

The RB-66B was used for recon work.
The RB-66B was used for recon work.

The next version of the B-66 to be procured was the penultimate variant, the RB-66B day and night photo-reconnaissance platform, of which 172 examples were manufactured.

The bomb bay was used to house and employ various camera systems, and this version was the principal night photo-reconnaissance platform for the USAF for almost the entirety of the B-66’s service life.

The following variant of the B-66 was the first aircraft purpose-designed for the electronic warfare role, the RB-66C, of which 36 units were manufactured.

The camera/bomb bay of the earlier models was re-configured into crew seating for four electronic warfare operators, and the version performed both the electronic reconnaissance and electronic counter-measures roles.

A number of the basic bomber airframes were utilised to produce the EB-66C/E ECM variants, and the last major production version of the Destroyer was the WB-66D which was a specialised weather-reconnaissance aircraft. Final production numbers of all B-66 variants totalled 294 units manufactured by the Douglas Corporation.

The B-66 Destroyer

As the B-66 descended from the naval A-3 Skywarrior, it retained the impressive dimensions of the earlier airframe, which was one of the largest and heaviest aircraft to operate from USN carriers. All specifications given here are for the B-66B bomber version of the Destroyer.

A B-66 with F-105s over Vietnam in 1966.
A B-66 with F-105s over Vietnam in 1966. Photo credit – manhhai CC BY-SA 2.0.

The height of the Destroyer was 23 feet 7 inches (7.19 metres), the length of the airframe is 75 feet 2 inches (22.91 metres) and the wingspan is 72 feet 6 inches (22.10 metres).

Empty, the B-66 weighs in at 42,549 pounds (19,300 kilograms) and the gross loaded mass of the aircraft is 57,800 pounds (26,218 kilograms). The Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of the B-66 was a hefty 83,000 pounds (37,648 kilograms).

The bomber and photo-reconnaissance versions of the B-66 had a crew of three: pilot, navigator and electronic warfare officer.

The variants that were optimised for electronic warfare/weather reconnaissance roles had additional crew members as required for their roles, and this extra personnel were housed in a compartment situated in the bomb/camera bay of earlier versions of the airframe.

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The B-66B was fitted with two Allison J71-A-11 non-afterburning turbojets, which generated 10,000 pounds of thrust each at full throttle. These engines gave the B-66 a maximum speed of 631 mph (1,015 km/h) and an economical cruise speed of 528 mph (850 km/h).

The combat range of the B-66 was 900 miles (1,450 kilometres) and the ferry range was 2,470 miles (3,974 kilometres). The service ceiling of the aircraft was 39,400 feet (12,000 metres).

A B-66 in flight.
Even without afterburners, the B-66 had decent performance.

Besides radios, the avionics of the basic bomber version consisted of two radars, one for weapons targeting and the second for defensive purposes.

The sole means of defence were two M-24 20 mm autocannons, which were fitted into a radar-controlled/remotely operated turret in the rear fuselage under the aircraft’s vertical tailplane. As a bomber, the B-66B could carry 15,000 pounds (6,800 kilograms) of ordnance in the bomb bay.

Service Record

The B-66 Destroyer operated solely with the United States Air Force, and the type was not offered for export.

Both the photo-reconnaissance and electronic warfare versions flew out of NATO bases in Europe during the early Cold War, and the EW version had an active role during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

In March 1964 a RB-66B strayed into East German airspace due to a compass malfunction and was shot down by a Soviet MiG-21. However, the crew ejected safely and were returned to Western Europe after being detained for a short period of time.

Regardless of their stated intentions of fighting communism and nation-building, the United States used the Vietnam War to test operational concepts and equipment for all the service branches, making Vietnam one gigantic test laboratory during the conflict.

The USAF in particular used aerial fighting to develop and test new combat procedures, particularly in the field of electronic warfare, which was a relatively new and exciting development in the aerial combat capabilities spectrum.

A WB-66C at Warner Robbins Air Museum.
A WB-66C at Warner Robbins Air Museum. Photo credit – Greg Glebe CC BY-SA 2.0.

The USAF mainly employed the EB-66 C/E ECM variant during the Vietnam War, and these aircraft were used to detect and jam North Vietnamese radars during bombing strikes and also employed to gather electronic data from the entire air defence network in the north of the country.

The platform also operated as an airborne command post for USAF strikes, controlling mainly Republic F-105 Thunderchief strike aircraft.

The Destroyers originally flew over North Vietnam when accompanying strike formations, but this could prove problematic at times.

Vulnerable to fighter interdiction, an EB-66C was shot down by a MiG over the north, and the B-66 was ordered to operate just outside of North Vietnamese airspace on operations but was still able to carry out electronic reconnaissance/countermeasures tasking from these locations.

The last EB-66E was retired from active USAF service in 1975, and most examples were scrapped shortly after or went into storage before eventual dismantling and disposal at a later date.


The Douglas B-66 Destroyer was an aircraft that had a successful service career, despite all the formidable obstacles thrown up against it during its development program.

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A poster child/prime example of procurement mismanagement, the B-66 stands as a very wasteful and unnecessary re-design process of a perfectly usable airframe.

And this was due to stupid and pointless in-fighting between the services which did nothing more than waste hideous amounts of time and money.

While never dropping a bomb in anger, the platform matured as an excellent reconnaissance/EW aircraft and served with distinction during the Vietnam War in these roles.

Little known today, the B-66 stands as an example of a classic Cold War aircraft, and one of the first successful electronic warfare aircraft to serve in combat.


  • Crew: 3 (Pilot, Navigator and EWO)
  • Length: 75 ft 2 in (22.91 m)
  • Wingspan: 72 ft 6 in (22.10 m)
  • Height: 23 ft 7 in (7.19 m)
  • Empty weight: 42,549 lb (19,300 kg)
  • Gross weight: 57,800 lb (26,218 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 83,000 lb (37,648 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Allison J71-A-11 (later Allison J71-A-13) turbojet engines, 10,200 lbf (45 kN) thrust each
  • Maximum speed: 548 kn (631 mph, 1,015 km/h) at 6,000 ft (1,800 m)
  • Combat range: 782 nmi (900 mi, 1,448 km)
  • Service ceiling: 39,400 ft (12,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 5,000 ft/min (25 m/s)